Predators can't afford to lose Weber

Predators can't afford to lose Weber

Published Jul. 19, 2012 12:24 p.m. ET

It’s the worst nightmare of any owner or general manager – losing two of your best players in a span of weeks without much, if anything, in return.

That’s the dilemma the Nashville Predators are confronting with the news that their captain, restricted free agent Shea Weber, has signed an offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers reportedly in the amount of $110 million over 14 years. The Predators have the right over the next seven days to match the offer.

Coming 15 days after fellow All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter left town to take a 13-year, $98 million deal with Minnesota, the Predators are, to put it simply, between a rock and a hard place.

Last season Suter averaged 26:30 per game in time on ice, third best in the NHL, while Weber averaged 26:09, the fifth highest. Together, they were on the ice for roughly half the game. When the two stalwarts were placed on the ice with one of the league’s best goalies in Pekka Rinne, the Predators were one of the NHL’s better teams. They finished with the fifth-most points in the NHL and advanced to the second round where they lost in five games to Phoenix after an incident in which two key players missed curfew and ended up being held out for two games.

Without Weber and Suter in the lineup for 2012-13, Preds fans could find themselves shielding their eyes from the action on the ice, an event too scary to contemplate. Without two of the best blue liners in the NHL — players in their prime — the Preds could find themselves leaning heavily on the young and the old, the not-ready-for-prime-time players and the past-their-prime players.

The Predators currently list six defensemen on their roster, the same number as a team dresses on a nightly basis. One of them is Jonathon Blum, 23, a former first-round pick who had an excellent end to his rookie season in 2010-11 but was exiled to the minors three months into last season and did not return.

Ryan Ellis, 21, is being counted on as a future star, but he has only 32 regular-season and three playoff games under his belt. Twenty-two-year-old Roman Josi would appear the most ready to help fill the void, but his style is more offensive and he would have to improve his defensive game on the fly.

Veteran Kevin Klein, 27, is one of the few in his prime but doesn't seem likely to  morph into a top-flight defenseman. The 37-year-old Hal Gill, is mainly a penalty-kill specialist.

The sixth defenseman on the Preds’ roster? It’s Weber. All of which points to the fact that the strength of the team – having what many last season called the best defense pair in the NHL – will turn into a group that is ordinary, if that, if they lose Weber. With Weber and a suitable replacement for Suter, possibly through the trade market, the Preds might not lose a step. Without both, again, it might be an eye-averting situation in which all of the progress of seven playoff berths in eight seasons could be at risk.

If the Preds elect not to match the offer sheet to Weber, a two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman), their compensation will be four first-round picks. If the Preds make the right picks – as they have a strong record of doing and as they did with Suter (seventh overall in ’03), Ellis (11th in ’09), among others – they can expect those players to start arriving in about 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. If they strike it rich, as they did with Weber and Suter, they can expect those players to be dominating, best-in-the-league types by 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024.

Get the picture? It’s a long rebuild. The Predators could reap a much better return for Weber in a trade, but the league’s collective bargaining agreement prevents NBA-style sign-and-trades. The Preds would have to wait at least a year to deal Weber if they choose to match the offer.

So the Preds have three choices. They can allow Weber to go, possibly jeopardizing all of the huge gains they have made at the box office, in which they set a franchise record with 26 regular-season sellouts and then five more in the playoffs last season. They can keep Weber for a year – having to pay him a reported $27 million in salary and bonuses over that period – and then trade him. A bonus of this approach is that with the current CBA expiring, the organization can hope that provisions in a new CBA alleviate some of their burden and make it easier to keep him.

Or they can match the offer, shelling out $80 million over the first six seasons, including $68 million in signing bonuses. In a statement the team issued on Thursday, general manager David Poile said the team's “intention would be to match,” but the Preds will take their time to evaluate the situation.

At this point, it’s a decision that only ownership can make — and one that has the chance to define the course of the franchise for the next decade.